SXSW 2021 reflects the changing entertainment landscape in form and function
Last week I attended my first SXSW. In light of the pandemic, the popular annual conglomeration of film, music, and interactive media went fully virtual. I expect the virtual experience felt starkly different for those who’ve attended the event in-person in the past. For me, however, it was all brand new, and I embraced the virtual platform that enabled me to hear from experts across the entertainment industry, during both live and on-demand sessions, as well as to watch festival films and concerts from the comfort of my own home. The form of SXSW 2021, as well as the content of the conversations entertainment experts were having during the week-long event, illustrated the evolving look of entertainment. It reinforced my expectations that the entertainment industry will be permanently altered coming out of the pandemic.
As I listened to industry insiders detail the impact of COVID-19 on their businesses, describe how they responded, and anticipate the months ahead, I noticed a couple of Comperemedia’s 2021 Telecom & Media Trends aligned closely with what I was hearing.
Comperemedia’s “Multidimensional Engagement” trend looks at the importance of cross-platform storytelling, which enables fans of one piece of intellectual property to engage with it, its worlds, and its characters through related content across multiple platforms. We anticipated this trend to gain steam this year, as consumers continue to look to virtual entertainment to satisfy their need for new experiences. In particular, we anticipated second screen engagements, gaming collaborations, and sports betting would be key areas for growth this year.
Several SXSW panels featured experts discussing how they built immersive, virtual worlds for fans of popular series and movies and the importance of offering these experiences to consumers in pandemic lock-down. Panelists noted how these experiences put the user in control of their own stories, giving them the freedom to experience their favorite worlds in ways they themselves could direct. On one panel, Walt Disney, Imagineering Managing Story Editor Margaret Kerrison explained that these kinds of adventures enable fans to experience something they can’t in normal life, and as a result, they offer “wish fulfillment.”
During a panel called “Reimaging Entertainment Through Mobile Gaming,” ViacomCBS’s Veronica Hart discussed Star Trek Online (a massively multiplayer online role-playing game). The game enables players to experience the immensely popular Star Trek franchise in new ways, by bringing them into a virtual world where they drive their own experience and can explore stories and characters as they choose. Hart also noted SpongeBob Squarepants, another important piece of intellectual property that commands a large and devoted fan base, upon which ViacomCBS has continued to build. It’s apparent how important the SpongeBob IP is for ViacomCBS if you’ve ever looked at Paramount+’s marketing. Paramount+ is releasing a variety of spin-off titles from the original series, and ViacomCBS has found success with its game SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom. Hart noted that the game originally launched in 2003, but last year ViacomCBS released a “rehydrated” version of the game to great fanfare.
One of the opportunities we identify in Multidimensional Engagement is for providers to make it easier for their subscribers to learn and navigate experiences related to the content they love. Sometimes it can be as simple as running a trailer for a game at the end of an episode or informing viewers of a related podcast before a film starts. While some providers are already doing this, there are many instances where that’s not the case. Especially on mobile or in-browser, it makes sense to direct the customer from something they love directly into another experience that enables them to engage with that content in a new, potentially deeper, way.
License and Entertainment, Please
In our trend “License and Entertainment, Please,” we consider the impact of COVID-19 on the video industry, which is driving both near-term, and more permanent changes to how platforms license, sample, and deliver content. This trend covers a lot of ground, but one of the key pieces is the breakdown of the traditional rules of engagement for new film releases. We expected to see (and are, in fact, observing) many more films coming to streaming instead of theaters; releasing on streaming at the same time as theaters; or coming to streaming after a significantly shortened theatrical window. We anticipate that the traditional theatrical window will be permanently altered post-pandemic, as more casual theater-goers embrace streaming as an adequate replacement for going to the cinema. According to Mintel research on movie theaters nearly half of 18+ internet users who watch movies said they don’t see a need to see movies in theaters anymore; a quarter said they didn’t know if they would go to movie theaters in the future.
The pandemic forced many filmmakers to reconsider how they distributed their films, because theater-going declined (due to theater closures, as well as consumer safety concerns), and because other distribution options were impacted. It was eye-opening to me to be reminded by filmmaker and distribution consultant Liz Manashil that there were a number of ancillary film distribution channels that were disrupted by COVID-19, including airplanes, cruise ships, and prisons. In short, there has been pressure from many angles to reconsider film distribution approaches, and for some filmmakers that meant going to streaming video.
Manashil’s panel, “A Survival Guide to Alternative Film Distribution,” also included Nick Savva, Head of Digital Distribution at Giant Pictures, who offered his perspective as someone who distributes films to streaming platforms. He noted that subscription video on demand (SVOD) and ad-supported video on demand (AVOD) platforms are buying new release movies, which he argued is great for independent filmmakers. Savva suggested that we should expect a lot more windowing and price point experimentation on video on demand with independent movies, adding that the streaming platforms have been very open to this kind of experimentation. Savva seemed confident that the old theatrical windowing rules will be altered for good.
A hybrid future
It’s unclear what the balance of virtual and in-person entertainment experiences will look like in the years ahead, but my guess is that we will have a much greater virtual focus than we had pre-pandemic, which will expand the audiences for many films, concerts, and other events. As a virtual SXSW attendee, I’m sure I missed out on some great networking opportunities, as well as the excitement of traveling to Austin and experiencing the city, along with in-person excitement for the festival’s films and concerts. But I was grateful that I could experience SXSW’s events and panels virtually from home, which made the experience more convenient, efficient, and affordable. I expect that SXSW, along with other conferences and the entertainment sector, will embrace new hybrid approaches in the future to give people options to engage in a way that best suits their interests, lifestyles, and budget.